Frankenstein, Tea Break Theatre @ Sutton House

Read the interview with writer/director Katharine Armitage.

Written and Directed by Katharine Armitage
Featuring Jeff Scott, Molly Small, Jennifer Tyler, Chris Dobson, Katy Helps. 
17 October – 3 November 2018

Frankenstein, Sutton House - Courtesy of John Wilson (4)200 years after it was first published by a teenage girl writing under a pseudonym, Frankenstein finally gets the women it deserves.

The show in many ways feels like what Peter Jackson is going for with his recent project of colourising and dubbing WW1 footage. Mary Shelley’s novel finds new life, colour and dimension in this innovative immersive, in-situ production.

The gothic tale begins with pop-rock streaming from a tinny cassette player, welcoming us to the world of the real-life squatters who occupied Sutton House during the 1980s. Clever scripting weaves together the three layers of stories – that of the squatters, of Mary Shelley, and of Frankenstein – and before you know it you’re in the story.

By ‘in the story’, I do mean in the story. The immersive elements embed the audience not just in the house, but within the home of the Frankensteins. Never allowed to become too comfortable, each audience group follows different actors around the house, and like the characters themselves we only see windows into the world. Despite some ‘dead time’ (forgive the pun) created by this, it felt like an orchestra in which you get to know the flute player as a human rather than just an instrument.

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The biggest ‘pop’ of reality, however, comes from what director Katharine Armitage calls “finding the women”. Commendations must go to Katy Helps (Justine) and Jennifer Tyler (Elizabeth) for rescuing the female characters from the constraints of the 19th century, and to Molly Small (The Creature) for a performance that carried the extra burden of a gender layer to the questions raised about monstrosity, creation and destruction.

Although occasionally unsubtle in its delivery, this production of Frankenstein is nonetheless a wonderful and innovative adaptation that is recommended to everyone from the life-long Frankenstein fans to those whose only pre-existing image is of a green man with a bolt through his neck.

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Interview with writer/director Katharine Armitage – Frankenstein @ Sutton House

Please note – This interview racked up to almost 4,000 words. It has been heavily edited for brevity.

Read our review of Frankenstein HERE.

Frankenstein has been adapted many times since it was published 200 years ago. Why did you choose Frankenstein and what different take are you hoping to bring to it?

Well actually, I didn’t know about the 200 year anniversary when I had the idea. The idea to do Frankenstein came from [Sutton] House, came from learning about the 1980s when the house was derelict and taken over by a group of squatters who turned it into an arts venue. First, we just loved the feel of the eighties, because it’s actually quite 1818. They recycled a lot of regency looks in there dress and style, and you get the invention of steam punk. The eighties was also a big time for science fiction, and Frankenstein is arguably the first to codify the genre. The other lovely thing is that the characters live there but it feels like he house wasn’t made for them. There’s an idea of the ‘outsider’ in inverted commas, people who are in a system and a place that is not designed for them. They try to make it homely but it’s cavernous, then they try put science in it and it’s old and creaky. We were interested in that tension. Thinking about the squatters, and the outsider identity led us to thinking about Frankenstein…

I love Frankenstein. I studied it at school and since then I’ve been quietly obsessed with it. The origin story of a 19 year old writing this book, seemingly out of nowhere is a little mindboggling. The things that really interested me about this is that she’s this incredible woman – Mary Shelley – the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft who is in some ways the mother of modern feminism, and yet there are almost no women in Frankenstein. Elizabeth is there to die, she’s a victim. So is Justine. It’s interesting to think about why Mary Shelley would be diminishing women. When re-reading the book, I started to think ‘well, in one way it makes sense’. You couldn’t write about that. You have to be clever. But the more you read it, the more you think that the whole thing is about women, even though the women themselves are diminished, the whole thing is about being a thing that’s created by a man and then rejected, a thing that doesn’t live up to expectations. It’s all about motherhood and it’s all about the demands of society. I call it ‘finding the women’, where we’re trying to stay true to the text she could have written if there no pressures of getting it published or making men read it.

Your company performed Dracula last year, which also used immersive theatre. How does having the audience in the performance itself effect storytelling?

For me, the joy of immersive is that you’re there in the room with people. You don’t have a fourth wall, but at the same time, you don’t audiences are still aware that they’re an audience. What I want to do is a story that you’re so close to that you can smell it, and you’re scared it might touch you. When we had a vampire on stage [in last year’s production of Dracula], for example, and it would come near the audience members they would shrink back, and completely forget that it’s a five foot five female actor. For Frankenstein we’re doing something kind of different because we’re letting the audience become a little more invisible… It’s partly because of the intimacy of the story, and you’re seeing these really intimate moments between characters and start thinking ‘I really shouldn’t be’. That’s the joy of doing something immersive and yet ignoring the audience. They begin to feel that they’re spying on something. It creates this really lovely tension.

That jumps nicely into the question of monsters, and who the monster is in the room. I thought it would be interesting to define first what ‘monster’ and ‘monstrous’ mean in the context of Frankenstein.

I love that question actually. On a basic level, it’s distorted nature. Natural but unnatural. If you think about images of monsters, a really obvious one like Godzilla,  it’s something natural – a lizard – but expanded up into something monstrous… It’s always this heightened distorted version of nature. But the other definition is one of destruction. A monster destroys. And that’s what makes them different from a villain who plots, or an evil person who is usually bent on acquisition, mostly of power. A monster doesn’t have that, they just destroy, seemingly for no reason. That’s why they’re so scary because you can’t reason with them…

It’s an interesting question when you look at Victor. Is he a creator or is a destroyer? And The Creature – are they creating their new life or are they a destroyer? If you create something that then becomes destructive, who really is the monster? And then when you do bring the women out of the shadows in the story, then there’s other elements of destruction or creation that come from the characters. Again I think that’s why this story is really about women, because it’s so much about the arrogance of man and the potential monstrosity within human kind and particularly within men… The other element is mutability. You can become monstrous. The question becomes, ‘is that their fault?’ and ‘is it justified?’. Don’t we all have that slight bit inside us that wants to just tear stuff up?

You’ve paralleled the impossible expectations The Creature faces with those faced by women. How would you say those have changed since 50, 100 or even 200 years ago?

I’m not sure they’re that different. Obviously the situation has changed hugely, for the better, but sometimes it feels like the expectations are not too dissimilar. It feels like they’ve just expanded. I think kids now might give you a different answer, but I grew up with the Disney fairy stories and I love them but the expectations in all of that is about marriage. Even for queer women, the way that society has dealt with it is by saying ‘okay, fine, fine, but we still want you to get married and have a family!’… I’ve been to a lot of weddings this year, and it’s great, but there’s still the same expectations. The bride is expected, demanded to be the most beautiful she’s ever been, to be elegant. These days it’s added that she’s expected to push the boundaries a little, maybe to make a small speech, but not too much. It’s complicated because people say ‘I want to be beautiful’ and that’s totally fine, but I wonder if we didn’t have those expectations if people would still want that…

You can be strong but you still have to be docile. I have quite a loud voice and I get told to be quite by men quite a lot. I’m allowed to be strong, but not loud. And not angry. Anger is not allowed for women, in the same way that anger is not allowed for men, which is a huge, huge problem that I would love to write about, but that’s for another play.

The other thing is that women are expected to be good. You have to be the safe space for children, and yes there’s a biological aspect to that but you’re not allowed to go off the track too much. You can be strong but you have to be good, and you have to behave, even if I don’t give you any reason to behave. And that’s the interesting thing with Victor and The Creature. It’s difficult because if you’re not good, you’re very quickly labelled unreasonable, or destructive, and you can’t be trusted. Even Mary Shelley, who in many ways was such a rebel, wanted most of all to marry and have babies. Despite shaking things up so much, she still wanted to be good, because that’s how you get accepted. Again, that’s what Frankenstein is all about. Acceptance, and wanting to be accepted… And then of course there’s the other interesting issue of the parents failing expectations as well. Babies very quickly develop expectations of the parents, and that is a process of constant disappointment as neither fully matches the others expectations.

Before we finish, is there any question you wish I’d ask you? Anything we’ve missed?

The only thing I’d like to highlight is the process of adaptation. I do mess with things, but what I’m aiming for is that you mess with things and people kind of feel like you haven’t. The best adaptations are when they’ve changed something and you see it and think ‘oh but I think that was in the book’. People coming to the show who know the book, what I’m hoping they’ll get is the sense of the spirit of the book, but also feel like this is a story that was hiding in the book. Adaptations should be part of a dialogue that takes you back to the original text, and makes you say ‘oh I can see now why they would say that’. I want people to see it as a conversation with the book.

Read our review of Frankenstein HERE.

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Elephant and Castle, Tom Adams and Lillian Henley @ Camden People’s Theatre

9th – 20th October 2018

Presented by Tom Adams and Lillian Henley

Elephant and Castle is a haunting, experimental piece of gig-theatre presented by husband and wife Tom Adams and Lillian Henley exploring the science and romantic impact of Adam’s parasomnia – sleep talking/walking.

A mattress propped up at the back of the stage begins to shake before creeping forward towards the audience – we hear a recording of someone whimpering, crying out layered with sounds of electrocution. It’s unsettling, to say the least. But then the mattress flips down and Henley and Adams bounce onto the bed in match-clash paisley pyjamas, find us with their eyes, and begin to sing their story, regaling us with when they first met and their later struggles with Adam’s parasomnia.

Henley’s hauntingly beautiful voice heightens the domestic tragedy of the songs, indicative of the show’s off-beat, quirky humour. This is a show that is not afraid to sit in its authored awkwardness. Elephant and Castle is equally generous and odd – cocooned by a Lynchian atmosphere. Recordings made over 3 years sample the strangeness of Adam’s night time ramblings, and are played in the darkness between transitions.

Henley plays her own long-sufferance to the cheek of Adam’s parasomnia – luminous, still, her voice transcendent, both eerie and beautiful. Adam’s mischief offers an appealing counterpoint, and they have a distinct chemistry that makes the spirit of this work unique. It delves into some darker territory, questioning what parasomnia can reveal, the threat it offers, never losing its idiosyncratic charm.

I especially enjoyed the use of a hand-held projector, projecting what looked like go-pro sleepwalk footage onto the back of the again upturned bed. It was immersive, lulling me into the logic of a dream-like state. The show’s composition and design converged in a fully realised atmosphere. As I sat, trying to grasp at shapes in the figurative footage, slipping out of definition, I happily gave myself over to its flow.

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Truth, Helen Chadwick Theatre @Southbank Centre

Created by Helen Chadwick
Directed by Stephen Hoggett
Performed by Victoria Couper, Krystian Godlewski, Liz Kettle, Helen Chadwick
Presented by Helen Chadwick Song Theatre and November Productions
Co-commissioned by Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Touring the UK until March 2019

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Image by Toby Farrow

Truth is a devised musical performance. Four performers deliver an exquisite hour-length choral performance of intricate and ever-shifting melody. The ensemble is reminiscent of a Greek chorus that gather to share the ‘testimonials’ collected by researcher and creator Helen Chadwick. It’s a little bit like an evening of short stories. Each scene unfolds a little world where a character shares their experience of deceit, dishonesty or delusion.

The stories are told through a creative combination of melody, lyric and gesture. Occasionally the highly-choreographed movement and inclusion of lights as props compete with the narrative at hand, but for the most part, it’s an absorbing and affective spectacle.

Unfortunately, while the nuance given to the technical execution of the production is impeccable, this highly conceptual show fails to deliver a coherent message.

“Truth” is a challenging topic, and the impulse to explore a big idea through the microcosm of personal stories makes sense at first glance, but the attempt to tie a collection of disparate human stories together with the common thread of ‘deceit’ is a tenuous strategy.

I felt particularly uneasy about the conflation of highly contextual human experiences, several of which involved trauma, being bundled into the same framework. For instance, an account from a victim of sexual abuse, a petty disagreement over a recipe between a couple, a worker lying on their resume and an individual experiencing gender dysphoria are all described by the chorus as ‘lying to oneself.’

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Image by Toby Farrow

Generalisations about the truth itself also felt problematic. A recurrent lyric was “never be afraid to raise your voice for truth”, delivering the sweeping conclusion that the truth (whatever that topic may be) should always be voiced regardless of the context of the situation.

Do we not lie for the ones we love? To protect ourselves? Because we have no other choice? The truth is not always beautiful, safe to tell, nor does confronting it necessarily set one free. Truth tells stories that demonstrate all these complexities, but the intricacies become lost and the core message incoherent.

I was left feeling unsure as to whether the ensemble was aware that the truth is so simple it can be reduced to platitudes, or whether they hoped to convey that it is so complex and highly contextual that we can’t pin it down. For what it’s worth, I think it is the latter.

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Dance Nation @ Almeida Theatre

27th August – 6th October 2018
Dance Nation  @ The Almeida Theatre
Written by Clare Barron
Directed by Bijan Sheibani

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Oh. My. God.

How AMAZING is it to see a female-dominated stage?

(Precursor: This will not be a rant review about this subject)

But genuinely, how unbelievably amazing, and surprising at this present time in the world, is it, to see a show on a main London theatre stage with the seesaw of gender balance teetering towards women? It’s shocking, really.

It is a more common thread now that I research as little as possible about shows before I see them.

Upon arriving at the Almeida, I picked up my ticket and programme and read through. An amazing forward written by Lyn Gardner (bless her reviewing socks) talking about women ‘taking up space’. I want to quote directly from this to set up what I witnessed on the Almeida stage.

‘In the very act of being performed, Dance Nation makes a stand by occupying space on stages which have historically been given over for the most part to male playwrights and male experience…… The young women in Dance Nation cannot be silenced. They fill up space and demand to be seen. You can shut your eyes, but they will still be there. They are not going away.’

Bloody hell, eh?

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The story of Dance Nation is reminiscent of any time you may have accidentally or not so accidentally watched ‘Dance Moms’. That trashy and brilliant tv show about preteens and their pushy mums in dance competitions.

Except this is told differently.

The story of pre-adolescence and growing up under the pressure of a dance world.

These young women’s stories are told in adult bodies. Which was an utterly brilliant choice as it made the story translatable, understandable and easier to connect to.

We have all been young children, confused and unsure and because these young girls were played by adult women, we could connect so much more deeply with the story.

The youth was genuine and not overemphasised. It was entirely believable.

All dance and movement was very basic but done exquisitely. We were not watching a West End musical. It wasn’t necessary. The expression and clarity in the movement and dance was all that was needed.

This is the beauty of simplicity in storytelling. You don’t need lots of costume changes and backdrops.

You don’t need bells and whistles when the human condition is performed and written so exquisitely.

The individual monologues (that were transitioned into so easily) were breathtaking. The one that stood out for me was Ashlee’s (performed by Kayla Meikle). A young girl afraid of her power. Afraid of her beauty. Afraid of her intelligence. Heartfelt and full of passion and fire. This performance was a punch to the gut and a slap across the face. How often as young girls were we made to feel like we had to make ourselves small or silence our fire under the male gaze?

I would be interested to have seen this show with a man, as I felt such a deep connection to this show having had the experience of being a young girl.

I loved this show on the whole. Simple, beautiful and completely challenging conceptions of being a young woman and facing life, sexuality and growing up.

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Super Hamlet 64 @ The Cockpit

Produced and presented by Eddy Day

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Trans/non-binary performer Eddy Day has many talents, and all of them are on display in this 90 minute show – song, mime, banter, many musical instruments, creative animation. It’s an exploration of what games mean to us and how we struggle with roles society imposes.

Despite Day’s skill, the show drags – it’s hard for one actor to maintain energy for over an hour, playing multiple characters with increasingly similar accents. Long segments felt unnecessary but for a single, simple joke or reference which frequently failed to support the show’s overarching message.

The music and projections were impressive, but not enough to support the text, which staggered under the the weight of lengthy quotation from a range of high and low culture texts.

The script was strongest when Day was original – there’s a few good monologues in there about living up to expectations and coming to terms with death – but the accompanying full 12 point font A4 page of video games referenced shows that there’s not enough focus in the show.

Full disclosure: I am obsessed with Hamlet. I’ve directed the play, I have most of it memorised, read essays about it for fun.

At one point, Day states, with ukulele accompaniment, that they’ve stuck pretty close to the spirit of the original. And they have, to an extent. Hamlet is also very long and discursive and filled with odd asides which add little to the main text. Day, as I’m sure they’re aware, is no Shakespeare. They’re clearly fond of the play, but has failed to interrogate or transform it.

In this production, Hamlet is simply another text to be quoted, as meaningful as any of the many, many video games which are referenced. It provides flavour, but could have been replaced with any other tragedy.

Secondary disclosure: I love video games. I sunk seven hours into Curse of Monkey Island last week and have strong opinions about Metal Gear.

Again – the video games are just there to provide flavour. There are so many touched on – through word play or complex visual presentations – that none of them are meaningful. A ten minute Portal reference? A motorcycle riding Ophelia? Rosa and Crash and Guile and Stan? It becomes noise, distracting from the core of what Day seems to be trying to get at.

Buried under the flurry of references, there’s a good 45 minute show about expectations and mortality, but it has to be exhumed from a pile of extraneous nonsense so tall it makes Ossa a wart.

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The Egg Rumour, The Brew Makers Theatre Co @ The Cockpit, Marylebone

Produced and presented by The Brew Makers Theatre Co

Written by Ellamae Cieslik

The Egg Rumour is an original musical about the “new corporate perk” of egg freezing so that women can work more and longer hours without being distracted by their reproductive needs.

The script was written and produced by the lead actor, Ellamae Cieslik. It uses intentionally shallow characters to mount a social critique on the corporate world which treats its employees as interchangeable resources with no regard for their actual desires. It focuses, however, on a fairly narrow target – egg freezing is a relatively small issue for women in the workplace, and I was surprised to see it spun out into an entire hour.

The script is strongest when it leans into humour – there are a few laugh-out-loud moments based on misogynistic etiquette manuals and good comedic timing. However, as the piece clips along quickly, without giving most of the characters names or any realistic depth, the more dramatic moments lack any emotional punch. There were moments that felt undeveloped or unresolved – the Egg Whisperer is consistently mentioned but only gets to speak in a single didactic monologue, and the sexy doctor seems like he’ll be more important than he is.

The performances are engaging, including some capable singing and a little fun choreography – the original songs are simple and effective jazz style pieces that work in the context of the show. The set and costume design are minimal and cleverly done.

Overall, the Egg Rumour feels like the first draft of a piece that could be a more complex exploration of women in the corporate environment – worth a look but not groundbreaking.

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Denied Under Section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act by Connie Wookey @ South London Theatre, West Norwood

Devised and performed by Connie Wookey

Connie Wookey (yes that is her real name) is a charming and talented performer who has composed a fun 45 minute show about some distressing topics.

Essentially a light comedy cabaret about things in life we can’t control, “Denied Under Section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act” touches on sexual harassment, malfunctioning planes and being an actress in New York, though doesn’t go into revelatory depth on any of these topics. Everything is dealt with simply, with a refreshing directness.

Some of Wookey’s songs and stories are touching, others feel a little like narrow casting – not all audiences are going to be able to identify or empathise with jokes about the vagaries of working as an actor or being middle class.

It’s an enjoyable show: a pleasant night out with an appealing host in Wookey.

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Bury the Hatchet, Out of the Forest Theatre @ The Hope Theatre, Islington

24 July – 11 August

Written by Sasha Wilson, further devised by the company
Cast: Joseph Harrison, David Leopold and Sasha Wilson
Design: David Spence
Lighting Design: Will Alder
Produced by Joseph Cullen, Sarah Divall and Claire Gilbert for Out of the Forest Theatre

Photo Credits: Reg Madison/Liam Bessell

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Bury the Hatchet is a re-visiting of the famous Lizzie Borden story, performed in the black-box studio of The Hope Theatre, Islington. Upon entering we find Sasha Wilson, the actor who plays Lizzie and herself as the playwright, kneeling on the floor in a lace black dress (wearing matching Etsy style earrings of Lizzie Borden) at the centre of radiating family portraits splattered with red blood. Sasha copies details from a hefty history tome into a notebook, presumably crafting the play we’re about to see. Above, a lit hatchet dangles from a rigged loop of rope.  Stringed instruments – a violin, a banjo, etc. – crowd the back of the stage. A resonant whistle fills the space as Joseph Harrison and David Leopold enter, completing the ensemble cast, and we’re off.

What follows is an investigation of the persevering mystery, nagging happenstance, and odd Victorian social hang-ups that contributed to the peculiar and unresolved case of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of the murder of her father and step-mother by hatchet in 1892. (Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks…etc.)

In the play, Sasha claims that she initially set out to write a historically accurate show. What results is an interesting frisson between Lizzie Borden pop-lore, the dramatisation of primary sources and the beginning of the playwright’s inquiry into both Lizzie’s motivation and her own fascination with the story, set to a gorgeous prairie bluegrass soundtrack.

Sasha’s exploration feels strongest when the playwright reflects on what she finds interesting about the murder and its circumstance – weaving together a possible psychology for Lizzie, before revising her theories with a new set of supporting facts. Her desire to find something else in Lizzie’s motivations, and Lizzie’s relationships with her sister Emma and the family maid Bridget, even if only through supposition, brings new life to the nursery rhyme.

Joseph Harrison and David Leopold had a markedly generous energy and seamlessly led the audience through the thorny mystery, expertly playing a bevvy of supporting characters. The ensemble was silly and charming, the piece defined by a meta-humour that buoyed along the more serious themes, allowing a critique of the original trial, both with facts, fictions and digressions.

The atmosphere was intimate and immersive, aided by a subtle choreographed movement, well-articulated by the actors and magnetic in the space. Within the studio, Will Alder created a moody, oil-painting lighting scape, with wisps of more electric horror, highlighting the ensemble’s striking arrangements (both musical/physical) beneath the ever-hanging hatchet.

The style sang best when it positioned its author as architect of the inquiry. Sasha Wilson is particularly compelling when she filters Lizzie through the lens of her own experience, reflecting on the awakening Lizzie might have felt after her first European tour, or interrogating her own relationship with death. While the details of the crime are teasingly interesting, the question of what is true remains locked in time and I found the pursuit of what might be understood, or re-interpreted from the vantage of now, to be far more engaging.

Overall, the piece was rich and evocative, expertly conjuring the feeling of vaudevillian horror as well as identifying something at the heart of our ongoing fascination with “guilty” true crime celebrities and Lizzie’s relatable, out of time refusal to have less.

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Bluebird @ The Space  

24 July – 4 August, 2018

by Simon Stephens
Directed by Adam Hemming
Presented by Space Productions

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I ventured to The Space in East London on a warm Wednesday evening to watch Bluebird by Olivier award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, and I have no regrets. Upon entering the square black box theatre I was surprised by the dynamic staging of a raised platform shaped as a cross with seating in each corner. As I sat listening to ‘All Saints’ singing ‘Never ever have I ever felt so low…’ (on hindsight, a perfect choice) nothing could prepare me for the stories I was about to be told (and how brilliantly they were told!).

We followed the working day of taxi driver Jimmy Macneill, played by the incredibly talented John Kearne, as he drives a diverse range of people down the streets of London. Within the scene’s each ‘fare’ (the person getting the taxi) opens up to Jimmy, sharing secrets, experiences and opinions. This text-based show could have been a lengthy nightmare. However, it was successfully put together by the director Adam Hemming who obviously had an eye for detail, which is incredibly important in such an intimate space. Each scene was given the space to breathe yet kept its pace, and the text was certainly the focus (as it should be with Simon Stephen’s words!). The naturalistic style was on point, especially the driving by John Kearne, and it allowed us to be completely immersed in the characters and their stories.

Subtle, yet effective transitions lead our eyes to different points of the stage and were an essential break between the emotional storytelling. Similarly the props and set were minimal and always relevant. It is important for the space to not be overcrowded when the focus is on the actors, especially when you have a cast like this one! I was blown away by the talent on stage; one of the first ‘fares’ in Jimmy’s taxi was Robert Greenwood, played by the captivating Mike Duran who delivered his monologue with such honesty and emotion that I could not hold help but hang off his every word. Similarly, Anna Dolan, who played the role of Jimmy’s wife Clare Macneill, was a force to be reckoned with. She is the type of actress I could watch perform every night for a year and still be amazed.

Space productions drove me to reflect on my own life, and consider the hopes and regrets people live with each day. An incredible piece of writing matched with an incredible cast… you would be crazy not to go see it!

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